Gender segregation, and Scientology as a religion: an average week for a secularist

SegregationBy LSS member Sadikur Rahman *

So let’s be clear about this. Instead of unequivocally backing down over the segregation row and accepting that segregation in any guise is undesirable, backward and has no place in universities, Universities UK (UUK) has, it seems, chosen to defend the indefensible.

The withdrawing of the hypothetical case study after criticism does not absolve them of their current position given that they are still sticking by the guidance as a whole. They have dug their heels in and decided that their time is best spent protecting and promoting an extreme aspect of Islam; namely that men and women should be segregated in public places. It doesn’t matter that it may not be what UUK – these supposed upholders of free speech – believe themselves, but of course it doesn’t affect them anyway because it will be others (Muslim men and women who don’t want to be segregated, and non-Muslim men and women who don’t want to be segregated) who are affected by UUK’s cowardly stance.

UUK claims that in adapting venues and lecture halls to make it nice and comfortable for speakers who want segregated seating they are protecting free speech. They also claim in their guidance that it is a hypothetical situation, which we all know is not the case of course. This is very real and it is coming to a university near you. This is such a cowardly stance that it deserves all the scorn it is getting. Politicians from both sides have condemned the guidance (see here and here).

UUK has even published the legal advice it received from Fenella Morris QC, saying that the guidance is lawful. UUK has now requested that The Equalities and Human Rights Commission provide guidance and UUK has suggested that this issue may need to be tested in court.

The advice suggests the guidance is lawful, which is questionable because I find it hard to see how segregation based on gender would not fall foul of our current anti-discrimination and equality legislation, let alone EU regulations. The advice focuses on issues which I think can be interesting but which are irrelevant to the principle of segregation itself. For example, it focuses on the idea of “voluntary segregation”. Apparently that’s ok then. How about the fact that it may not be voluntary at all, but an idea imposed on the students by an outside speaker because of his religious opinion? The students will obviously – if they want to listen – sit separately, but can it really be said to be voluntary? I don’t think so. Would it be lawful – or even just plain socially acceptable – if at a university lecture people “voluntarily” decided at the behest of a speaker’s “genuinely-held” religious beliefs to segregate on the basis of race, or religion? It would not be.

In any case, the issue is not about whether this is lawful. This was simply guidance issued by a non-public body institution to its members who may or may not take the guidance on board, and it is to some extent a private matter. I would have thought it would breach anti-discrimination laws – but some Counsel obviously seem to think otherwise.

UUK may be right in saying that it may have to be tested in court. But why do they want such an issue tested in court? It seems to be an extraordinary situation in which an organisation representing universities in the UK is willingly placing itself in the position of defending the principle of segregation – and thus fighting the fundamentalists’ battle for them. Once it comes to court, arguments about free speech will fall away because ultimately it is this specific bit of guidance the court will be concerned about. Once the “nitty gritty” of how such segregation will take place is minutely looked at it will perhaps only be then that it will dawn on UUK that we are not dealing with “hypothetical” situations.

What all of this says to me is that secular ideals have gone out of the window and we are being forced to have debates about issues which have been settled for some time, all to appease a minority of fundamentalist Muslim preachers who are scared of the sight of women. Why UUK is so keen to protect these preachers to the extent that they are willing to give up such a fundamental right as the equality of treatment between men and women is incomprehensible.

It would be interesting to know who asked for this guidance. Was there any pressure? Ultimately, it is not about free speech. It is disingenuous of UUK to suggest that it is. The preacher can sit behind a screen if he so wishes, or speak via Skype or use some other form of technology. The students can access the talk in any number of ways. In any case, we have also seen plenty of instances where free expression has been genuinely – and unnecessarily – prohibited, especially when it is deemed to be “offensive” to Islam (see here), and we all accept that there are legitimate limits to free speech and expression where, for example, incitement to violence is concerned. And I certainly have no objections from a free speech perspective to preachers giving talks about the supposed merits of segregated seating but the question is: should we as a society reorganise the way we interact with each other just to accommodate and give effect to that speaker’s gender segregation beliefs?

The answer must resoundingly be no.

Now that I have that off my chest there was some funnier news – both in the sense of strange and haha. The Supreme Court found that the Church of Scientology is a religion and that a couple who wanted to marry in a Scientology church could do so. Here is the judgment. It is a very interesting read.

Now, putting to one side the fact that this may mean Scientologists can now get tax exemptions because they happen to be a religion, it seems to me this decision, perhaps unintentionally, demonstrates that anyone can claim something is a religion if they genuinely believe it is. It demonstrates that there really is no difference between a religion, or a cult, or the Church of Scientology. The only thing the older religions have going for them is age. And numbers.

There are other repercussions. For example, will it mean that anyone can solemnise a marriage as long as they claim it is in a religious place of worship? Who is to say what is a place of worship? If a set of beliefs is nonsensical does that make it less likely it will be recognised as a religion? Or does it make it more likely? Does the state need to be involved in such decisions? Are we going to have to then accommodate the demands of every set of beliefs that constitutes a religion? Unless we get away from privileging religion in so many ways, then what do you think?

* Sadikur Rahman was an LSS member from May 2013 to Jul 2015


Image credit: National Secular Society

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